It is May 13, 1940, and Winston Churchill is giving an address to his fellow politicians that, as it turns out, will prove historic. Having just accepted the position of British prime minister at the beginning of World War II, Churchill eloquently pledges himself to the cause of victory. Today, the man is celebrated for this speech and others like it. Yet there are also darker aspects to his personality – and they’re worthy of consideration.
Following some difficult years in politics, Churchill eventually emerged as one of the most important figures of modern times. Having stood against Nazi Germany, he has come to represent the notions of freedom and British pugnacity for many people. Indeed, along with the United States’ Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin, Churchill led the Allied forces to triumph.
Churchill spoke fervidly in favor of democracy and the right to liberty throughout the course of World War II. And many of his articulations are still known and studied decades after they were first delivered. In fact, it might be said that some of his speeches remain the bedrock of British national identity today.
Yet beyond his more favorable words and actions, Churchill is also said to have held some extremely questionable views. In fact, he apparently held prejudices that were totally contrary to the sentiments that he’s remembered for espousing. So while his undoubted achievements during World War II are celebrated, there are also other factors to ponder.
Born in the winter of 1874, Churchill came from an aristocratic family with deep ties to British politics. In fact, both his father and his grandfather had been members of parliament for the U.K.’s Conservative Party. His American mother, meanwhile, had herself been born into a family that been quite rich.
At just seven years of age, Churchill attended a boarding school in the English town of Ascot. The young boy reportedly despised this experience, and his grades and behavior were apparently below par. Over the years, his academic abilities began to get better – but he was still apparently badly behaved.
In 1893 Churchill began undertaking military training, entering the British Army two years later with the rank of second lieutenant. Then, taking advantage of his wealthy mother’s social stature, he arrived in Cuba. Here he hoped to see the country’s war of independence against Spain – and he actually ended up contributing towards the Spanish side.
By 1896 Churchill had ended up in British India, traveling around the territory over a period of 19 months. At some point during this time, the young man reportedly recognized the limitations of his own education. Consequently, he took it upon himself to learn of his own accord, studying numerous works of philosophy and history.
Around then, Churchill supposedly began to develop his own political inclinations. Apparently, he held views that broadly reflected those of the U.K.’s Liberal Party at the time. Yet he ultimately disagreed with the group’s support for Irish self-governance separate from the U.K. Consequently, he aligned himself with the Conservative Party.
In 1899 Churchill stood for election, hoping to enter the British parliament as a representative for the constituency of Oldham. He failed, and so turned to journalism. He then traveled to South Africa in the midst of war, reporting for The Morning Post and the Daily Mail. But while he was over there, he was captured as a prisoner of war.
Eventually, Churchill and a pair of his fellow prisoners managed to escape from captivity. Stowing away on trains and ships, he eventually returned to Britain – and he was celebrated as a hero. In 1900 he again stood to become Oldham’s representative in parliament. And this time, he was successful.
As a member of parliament, Churchill gained a reputation for going against his fellow Conservatives. Indeed, on a number of issues he actually ended up voting in support of the Liberal Party’s views. After one particular speech advocating trade unions, the Daily Mail even described Churchill’s attitude as, “Radicalism of the reddest type.”
In 1904 Churchill went as far as to openly denounce the Conservative Party by “crossing the floor.” This term relates to the notion of a politician altering their allegiances from one party to another. In this case, Churchill crossed over from the Conservative side to the Liberal one – though he would switch back again 20 years later.
As a Liberal politician, Churchill offered his support for workers’ rights, even contributing towards the notion of a minimum wage. In 1908 he tied the knot with Clementine Hozier, who would remain his wife throughout the rest of his life. Two years later, he became home secretary. Given this new role, he began to reform the U.K.’s prison system.
In 1911 Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty, the leading political position of the Royal Navy. While serving in this role, he started to prepare British naval forces in anticipation of a conflict with Germany. In fact, he declared that the British would construct two battleships for every single one made by Germany.
In August 1914 Germany invaded Belgium, ensuring that Britain entered a conflict that later became known as World War I. Churchill was charged with supervising the navy at the time, and he was later also given authority over aerial defenses. In the midst of the conflict, he also supported the idea that tanks be developed.
Churchill was instrumental in the formation of what is known as the Gallipoli campaign. This was a plan to help out Russian forces in their efforts against the Turkish – but it was a failure. Many placed responsibility of the resulting calamity upon Churchill. So his rank of First Lord of the Admiralty was taken away.
Churchill initially struggled to shake off the stigma following him in the wake of his failings at Gallipoli. But in July 1917 the new prime minister, David Lloyd George, selected him as the minister of munitions. While he was serving in this role, Germany capitulated, and the bloody war came to an end.
In the years after the conflict, Churchill managed to obtain a number of senior political positions. By the end of 1924, he had been named as Chancellor of the exchequer and had reunited with the Conservative Party. Yet in an election in 1929, the Conservatives lost power to the Labour Party.
Under the rule of the Labour Party, Britain decided to bestow dominion status upon India. This was intended to allow India more opportunity to rule itself, with less interference by the British Empire. Churchill vehemently opposed such an act, going as far as to suggest that it constituted “a crime.”
Elsewhere, in the run-up to World War II, Churchill openly encouraged Britain to prepare for a conflict with Germany. And when hostilities actually broke out on September 3, 1939, he was once again made First Lord of the Admiralty. This position meant that he was an important figure within Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s inner circle.
By May 1940 events within the conflict had developed to a point seemingly beyond Chamberlain’s abilities to handle. He gave up his post as prime minister, meaning a successor was required. The role was reportedly meant to go to Lord Halifax, but he refused it. Then the job was offered to Churchill.
Upon taking on the role of prime minister, Churchill gave a number of speeches that have endured to this day. The first of these was delivered to the House of Commons on May 13, 1940. In this particular address, he declared, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
Perhaps the most famous oratorical piece ever delivered by Churchill came on June 4, 1940. On this date, the Prime Minister sought to prepare his country for a possible German invasion. Indeed, the words that he spoke that day have endured and been remembered by many ever since.
“We shall fight on the seas and oceans,” Churchill proclaimed. “We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”
Churchill led his country through the Battle of Britain, in which German air forces attacked the U.K. Throughout this period, Churchill sought to maintain public morale, giving speeches and demonstrating the V for Victory sign. On August 20, 1940, he delivered a now famous statement relating to the Royal Air Force. “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” he said.
As the war waged on, Churchill sought to establish a so-called “Grand Alliance” between Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. Eventually, he helped to secure such a coalition to fight against the Axis powers. This is sometimes referred to as the “Strange Alliance,” as it managed to bring together the leading colonial, capitalist and communist powers.
Naturally, the Grand Alliance was strained at times. But ultimately it allowed for a defeat of Germany. On May 8, 1945, Churchill addressed the nation to proclaim Victory in Europe Day. He informed the public that a ceasefire across Europe would be established that very night. And speaking to masses of people later that day, he said, “This is your victory.”
Having defeated Nazi Germany, Churchill went down as one of the most important figures of the 20th century. So, naturally, his acts and conduct during World War II continue to be studied and celebrated today. Yet many accounts and depictions of the man have failed to take into account other inclinations of his personality.
Over the course of his life and career, Churchill several times exhibited blatantly racist views. At one point, for example, he reportedly claimed that the people of Palestine were “barbaric hordes who ate little but camel dung.” He even once bragged about murdering three “savages” in Sudan as a younger man.
Churchill was also said to have been a strong supporter of the use of chemical weapons. According to a memo that was quoted by The Guardian in 2013, he actually wanted to use them in India. “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes,” he apparently said.
India, it seems, was a particular target of Churchill’s racist worldview. In fact, according to a 2010 article published in the Independent, he once actually proclaimed, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” And there was one notable Indian person in particular who got under his skin.
Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of a movement seeking Indian independence from the British, conducted himself based upon a principle of nonviolence. Yet Churchill, in response, employed extremely violent imagery against the man. “[Gandhi] ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new viceroy seated on its back,” he is reported as having said.
Churchill’s hatred of India apparently went beyond words, too. In fact, some have claimed he was instrumental in a 1943 famine which occurred in the Indian province of Bengal. It’s been suggested that this disaster occurred as a result of the British Empire’s ineffective rule of the territory. It reportedly resulted in the deaths of around three million Indians.
Throughout the course of this famine, Churchill is said to have ignored pleas for aid. In fact, he allegedly once suggested that the disaster could be blamed on the Bengali people themselves because they were “breeding like rabbits.” At another point, he reportedly remarked that the famine was “merrily” lessening the numbers of the people of the region.
Elsewhere, another stain upon Churchill’s record relates to the bombing campaign of Dresden in 1945. This saw the British and Americans almost completely destroy the German city, resulting in many thousands of civilian fatalities. Churchill is said to have been primarily responsible for the operation, which at least one person has declared to be a war crime.
Soon after the end of World War II, Churchill’s party lost a general election and he was forced to become Leader of the Opposition. Yet after six years he ascended to power once again, becoming Prime Minister for the second time in 1951. And during this term, he oversaw yet another brutal episode of British imperialism.
Churchill apparently believed that white people were entitled to settle in Kenya’s more fertile areas. So, working from this basis, he authorized a campaign to remove local inhabitants. And after these people tried to initiate a rebellion, around 150,000 of them were sent to camps that a historian has compared to the Soviet gulags.
Acts such as these appear to go against many of the ideals for which Churchill has been widely celebrated. Indeed, for all his talk of liberty, it seems that he held problematic – often dangerous – views. But what does all this mean for a nation built, in part, upon his legacy?
Churchill’s influence has undeniably reached many areas of British life. Indeed, many people are likely to continue revering him, while others will keep in mind his more sinister leanings. But perhaps a consideration of all these elements will allow for a greater understanding of a complicated man, as well as the legacy of the empire that he once led.